What We Do

Students come to HMI for life-changing experiences during a semester or summer of high school, or in the years immediately following for a semester of a gap year. The Apprentice Program, our teacher fellowship program, works with college graduates beginning a career in education, and our Educators’ Expedition offers summer professional development for teachers and school administrators. From our campus high in the Rocky Mountains to the wilds of Patagonia, our students travel into the wilderness and foster communities of shared responsibility, creating the foundation for rigorous intellectual experiences.

Our Programs

High School Semester

High School Summer

Gap Semester

Apprentice Program

HMI in 90 Seconds

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Music for this video was written and performed by Fall 2017 HMI student Hazel Delehey.

HMI at a glance

  • HMI is an accredited, not-for-profit independent school and gap year provider
  • Our high school semester program awards academic credit for classes that align with course requirements at sending schools across the country
  • Approximately 150 motivated, high-achieving students and 30 adults participate in HMI programs each year; HMI is not a wilderness therapy or rehabilitative school
  • All HMI programs combine exploration of the natural world with intellectual pursuits and intentional community
  • All HMI programs involve backpacking; some also involve rock climbing and backcountry skiing
  • No previous outdoor experience is necessary to participate; many of our students are new to these activities
  • HMI awards over $800,000 annually in need-based financial aid

HMI is a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit organization that welcomes students of diverse racial, ethnic, social-economic, and geographic backgrounds.  We are a fully accredited school through The Association of Colorado Independent SchoolsThe Association of Experiential Education, and The Gap Year Association. Further, we are a member of The National Association of Independent SchoolsThe Semester School NetworkThe National Business Officers Association, and The Colorado Diversity Network.

Our Mission

The High Mountain Institute engages students with the natural world. Our school boldly unites rigorous intellectual inquiry, experiential learning, wilderness expeditions, and shared responsibility in a strong community. Our students realize their potential—as leaders, independent thinkers, and thoughtful citizens.

Our Core Values

  • Mentorship in and out of the classroom
  • Transference of what students learn beyond HMI
  • Place and community based education
  • Process based learning that teaches students how to think, not what to think and conveys a passion for learning
  • Integration of the natural world, academics, & residential life

Our Story

The High Mountain Institute was founded in 1995 by Christopher and Molly Barnes. Experienced in classroom and outdoor education, Christopher and Molly realized that no opportunity existed to combine the two pedagogies during the academic year. As such, the two set out to create HMI, the place “where nature and minds meet.” The High Mountain Institute opened its doors in fall 1998 with a cohort of 21 students forming the inaugural HMI Semester. Enrollment grew steadily in the following years, reaching 48 students in 2014 where it has held since. The HMI campus has also grown, doubling in size from 40 to 80 acres in 2011, and increasing in number of academic, facilities, and residential buildings. After co-leading the school together for nearly twenty years, Molly and Christopher Barnes departed HMI in 2013, entrusting the school to the board of trustees. 

The following film describes the story of the High Mountain Institute from its founding in 1995 to the departure of its founders in 2013. It was produced by HMI alumnus and former trustee Michael Gregory.

Head of School Danny O’Brien has led HMI since 2013. Under Danny’s leadership, HMI has begun offering gap year programming, experienced record enrollment and application numbers for the HMI Semester and Summer Term, doubled its endowment, and completed an ambitious capital campaign to revitalize and expand campus. Today HMI currently claims over 2,000 alumni across the globe and is recognized nationally as a leader in experiential education.

Head of School Danny O’Brien with his wife Ellie, their daughter Vivie, and their son Henry

Read HMI's 5-Year Strategic Plan